Occupy the Dance Floor

When we settled on the 60s Summer of Love era as a theme for the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band’s Dance-Along Nutcracker, Clara’s Magical Mystery Tour, we didn’t know the entire nation would get into the act. In July, we had no idea that by Thanksgiving thousands of people would have taken to the streets to demand a fundamental shift in societal values – values that place people before profits, democracy before capitalism. Demands that pair perfectly with a chorus of Kumbaya.

Anticipated or not, there’s a whiff of patchouli in the air that not even U.C.-funded pepper spray has been able to mask. At the Union Square tree lighting last Friday, a giant peace sign flew over the heads of Occupy protesters as they tried to shake the harried shoppers out of their Black Friday complacency. With police copters chopping above and tie-dye flying, it felt like we could march everyone – holiday shoppers, Occupy activists, police officers – down to our performance space at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and break out into a chorus of “We Need A Little Protest” or “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Haight Street” before launching into “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”

Of course, the 60s theme of Clara’s Magical Mystery Tour would strike a chord with us San Franciscans even without mass demonstrations in the streets. The Summer of Love, the Free Speech Movement, and all the music, “60s” culture and community building that followed are integrated into the fabric of our Bay Area consciousness and institutions. The Dance-Along Nutcracker (DAN) itself is at its heart a 60s-style happening with audience members jumping up to fill the dance floor with their personal expressions of Nutcracker-ness every time the Freedom Band plays a little Tchaikovsky.

The DAN was inspired by the “Sing-It-Yourself Messiah,” which empowered audiences to sing their own Alleluia-alleluias in 1979. The year before that, an explosion of community music programs came from the Gay Castro, newly invigorated by the movement that elected its first openly gay supervisor, Harvey Milk. The Freedom Band, SF Gay Men’s Chorus and many other groups combined activism and music, embracing performance as a way to come Out and be counted. A few years later, S.F. Tap Troupe founder Wayne Fleisher, who produced the Freedom Band’s concerts then, thought there was no reason why holiday self-expression couldn’t be extended to ballet and launched the first Dance-Along Nutcracker at the Gift Center Pavilion in 1985.

That first production of the Dance-Along was emceed by Jose’ Sarria, gay rights activist, San Francisco drag celebrity, and the first openly gay person in the U.S. ever to run for public office (‘61). Naturally, he appeared as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and naturally, he had a wingspan and a fairy wand length befitting his station as Empress I and founder of the Imperial Court of San Francisco: something approximating 5- and 3-feet long, respectively. That production, a high-end cocktail party for adults in formal dress with dancing, looked radically different from today’s show. Back then, the idea of the Gay Community hosting an event for children was unthinkable, though Fleisher told me he hoped one day it would catch on with kids. Today, there’s still an evening gala for grownups with cocktails and a 60s rock party. But at the daytime shows, LGBT and straight families alike rush the dance floor, and part of the charm is watching the wreckless abandon of little munchkins spinning and bopping among the adults.

So how do you transform a 19th Century, Napoleonic-era German story into a psychedelic “Summer of Love” happening?

In Clara’s Magical Mystery Tour, Clara is a flower child and Uncle Drosselmeyer is a hippie who’s renamed himself Moon Juice. The Rat King is a bad boy biker dude who catches Clara’s fancy, and the Nutcracker is named Sgt. Lemon-Pepper and dresses like a Beatle. Artistic Director Jadine Louie has pulled together a music program that showcases the variety of 60s & 70s pop music. Interspersed with the Tchaikovsky favorites are tunes from Motown, the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, and of course, the Beatles.

Cast members of this year’s show have some chops performing in the tradition of the Cockettes, a gender-bending hippy theater ensemble from the 60s/70s. Leigh Crow, who plays the Rat King a la Leader of the Pack, starred in the Thrillpeddlers’ revival of “Vice Palace: The Last Cockette Musical” earlier this year, reprising the role originated by Divine. Flynn DeMarco (Sgt. Lemon-Pepper Nutcracker) performed in “Vice Palace” and in the previous long-running revival of the Cockettes’ “Pearls Over Shanghai,” as did Corinne Levy, who performs in the DAN as a featured dancer and Mrs. Stahlbaum. Lia Metz (Clara) won the burlesque act category of the 2010 Bijou Cabaret Contest, emceed by Trauma Flintstone and Katya Smirnoff-Skyy.

This is one Nutcracker that’s gotta spin counter-culture-clockwise.

– Heidi Beeler

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